11 September 2023
Capturing the moment for a low-carbon and equitable energy transition
Published online 28 June 2023
In the run-up to COP28 in Dubai, Mahmoud Abouelnaga, Solutions Fellow at the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, discusses the potential of carbon management technologies beyond the Global North.
During the Major Economies Forum earlier this year, the United States and ten other countries, ten countries, including Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia, announced the Carbon Management Challenge. This global initiative supports the deployment of large-scale carbon sequestration technologies as a climate mitigation tool. Participating countries will announce contributing measures and specific goals at the upcoming United Nations Conference of the Parties (COP28) later this year in Dubai, UAE.
There is wide agreement across the scientific community about the need for large-scale deployment of carbon management technologies in order to substantially reduce emissions and limit global temperature increase to 1.5 °C by the end of the century. But these technologies should not be viewed as an excuse to delay other mitigation efforts based on the assumption that carbon management will be available and can scale up relatively quickly.
Carbon management refers to carbon capture, utilization, and storage (CCUS) technologies that capture carbon dioxide emissions from point sources (e.g., industrial facilities and power plants); and carbon dioxide removal (CDR) technologies that remove carbon directly from the atmosphere. In both approaches, the captured carbon is used to make low-carbon products or is stored safely in underground formations.
A variety of capture processes exist, but they generally work under the same concept within an absorption-regeneration loop. First, the flue gas is fed into an absorber, where a chemical or physical solvent will react with carbon dioxide. The carbon dioxide-rich solvent is then transferred to a regenerator where the temperature is raised to allow the separation of carbon dioxide. This increase in temperature reverses the carbon dioxide absorption reaction, producing a pure carbon dioxide gas and a fresh solvent. Finally, the fresh solvent can be returned to the absorber to start the cycle again.
After the carbon is captured, it can be compressed and transported (via pipelines or other means) to its final destination for utilization or storage. Carbon utilization technologies use carbon dioxide as a feedstock for synthesizing chemicals and fuels. Carbon dioxide can also be used for food and beverage production. One of the most mature conversion pathways is the direct conversion of carbon dioxide to various value-added hydrocarbons (e.g., methanol, ethanol, polymers). Another carbon utilization pathway is mineralization, which involves the reaction of carbon dioxide with alkaline sources to produce solid carbonates. A promising opportunity for this pathway is the reduction of hard-to-abate emissions produced from conventional concrete production.
In terms of storage, carbon dioxide can be injected underground into geologic formations where it can be stored safely. Similar to the way that naturally occurring oil and gas are trapped underground, the sequestered carbon dioxide can be held in place by layers of low-permeability rock caprock on the top that prevents upward leakage, with porous rock formations on the sides and below containing fluid that is denser than the carbon dioxide, thereby trapping the carbon dioxide in between. Additionally, the injected carbon dioxide reacts with minerals in the rock and solidifies into carbonates over time, locking the carbon dioxide into the rock formation.
There has been a lot of progress regarding carbon management projects globally. Currently, there are 30 projects in operation with a total annual capture capacity of almost 45 million tonnes of carbon dioxide. Additionally, there are 11 projects under construction and 153 projects in various stages of development globally. If all these projects come to fruition, it could bring the global capacity to capturing 220 million tonnes of carbon dioxide annually by 2030. However, this is still very far from what’s needed to be on track to meet our mid-century climate targets. According to the International Energy Agency, we would still need a sixfold increase in annual capture capacity by 2030 to get on track to net-zero emissions by 2050.
In the MENA region, there has been limited (yet increasing) interest in the deployment of carbon management technologies. The UAE has developed Al-Reyada project with a capture capacity of 800,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide per year from a steel production facility. Saudi Arabia has also been investing in the development of a number of facilities in the eastern region, where a cluster of industrial facilities can enable large-scale CCUS. This includes the Uthmaniyah demonstration project, which captures 800,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide per year from a natural gas plant. Qatar has the largest capture capacity in the region, with 2.2 million tonnes of carbon dioxide per year from the Ras Laffan gas liquefaction plant. In addition to their role in climate mitigation, carbon management technologies can also help countries in the region reduce carbon intensity and enhance the competitiveness of their energy-intensive products.
To date, the focus on carbon management technologies has been concentrated in developed economies. There is a need for building global frameworks that support collaboration on research, development, and demonstration of carbon management technologies between the Global North and South. This would facilitate technology transfer, enabling policy development and funding opportunities. It could also support local capacity building and economic development.
All future economic development scenarios project higher levels of industrialization in developing economies. Carbon management technologies can forge new pathways for decarbonizing these industrial activities rather than slowing them down. Developed countries should invest in the early deployment of carbon management technologies to bring their cost down and allow their transfer to developing economies at lower costs to support their decarbonization plans. This could give developing countries more flexibility to realize their economic development targets without sacrificing global climate targets.
Mahmoud Abouelnaga is a Solutions Fellow at the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions (C2ES). His work engages policymakers and business leaders on the global policies needed to support carbon management technologies and decarbonization of hard-to-abate sectors to mitigate climate change.